WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Tuesday called Donald J. Trump’s criticism of a federal judge of Hispanic heritage “the textbook definition of a racist comment” and said he “regrets” the remark. But Mr. Ryan also reiterated his support for Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“I disavow these comments — I regret those comments that he made,” Mr. Ryan said after announcing a new Republican anti-poverty initiative in Anacostia, an overwhelmingly black neighborhood in Washington.
“Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Mr. Ryan continued. “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”
He said, “I believe that we have more common ground on the policy issues of the day and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than with her.”
Mr. Trump made the comments about Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel of Federal District Court, who is overseeing a suit against the now-shuttered Trump University.
Pressed on Mr. Trump’s doubling down on his position that he is skeptical of the objectivity of nonwhite judges, Mr. Ryan said, “If you say something that is wrong, the mature and responsible thing is to acknowledge that it’s wrong.”
As the party’s highest-ranking elected official, Mr. Ryan faces perhaps the most difficult challenge as tries to balance support for his party’s nominee with the need to advance Republicans’ broader fortunes in the fall. There is rising concern in the party that Mr. Trump’s insults are offending broad swaths of the electorate in ways that could imperil Republicans in down-ballot races.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, expressed disbelief that Republicans would condemn Mr. Trump’s remarks as racist and yet continue to support him. “You can run but you can’t hide,” Mr. Durbin said, adding, “The Grand Old Party is going to be held accountable in November.”
Across the Capitol on Tuesday, several Republicans struggled to justify their continuing support of his candidacy, and in many cases fell back on the argument that there was simply no other choice.
“Look, he stepped in it,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee told reporters. “And you know this happens sometimes in campaigns.”
Mr. Corker said he hoped Mr. Trump would recognize his mistake and shift course.
“I am a Republican, but what I care more about is our nation, and where we’re going as a nation,” he said. “And so again, I hope this isn’t the pattern that is going to occur between now and November. But what I see is, O.K., you have got a binary choice.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said, “My advice to our nominee would be to start talking about the issues the American people care about.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is not supporting Mr. Trump, said many Republicans were feeling the blowback from the presumptive nominee’s statements. “He’s created a problem for himself and everybody else, and if he could show some ability to adjust that would probably solidify his support and help him down the road,” Mr. Graham said.
“What he is doing regarding this judge, as I said, is un-American, it’s outrageous, I think,” Mr. Graham said. “The judge’s family, mom and dad were born in Mexico. He is the epitome of the American dream.” Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.
“As far as I can tell, the judge has done nothing inappropriate legally,” Mr. Graham added. “There is a reason the lawyers haven’t asked the judge to step down because his parents were born in Mexico — because if you did that, not only would you lose the motion, you could be sanctioned by the court and disbarred.”
Mr. Ryan on Tuesday struggled but mostly failed to distinguish between Mr. Trump’s remarks and the man himself, saying, “I don’t know what’s in his heart.”
He said: “I do absolutely disavow those comments. I think they are wrong. I don’t think they are right-headed. And the thinking behind it is something I don’t personally relate to. But at the end of the day this is about ideas. This is about moving our agenda forward.”
He added, “I believe that we are far better off advancing these policies, getting them into law, with his candidacy than we clearly are with Hillary Clinton.”
Asked how he could support Mr. Trump after calling the remarks racist, Mr. Ryan said: “I don’t know what’s in his heart but I think that comment itself is defined that way. So I’m not going to defend these kinds of comments because they are indefensible.”